Life after Bali for the WTO Doha Round

Some weeks ago I discussed the prospects for a Doha Round mini-package at the next WTO Ministerial Council meeting in Bali in December, and I explained the proposals making up the agricultural elements of that mini-package. A recent paper produced jointly by the Geneva-based International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also provides a useful introduction to the agricultural issues at stake in the Bali talks.
Since then, the Chair of the agricultural negotiations has provided a status update on the progress towards agreement on this mini-package. It makes for tortuous reading as the negotiators get into mind-numbing detail on aspects of the proposals. At the same time, the new WTO Director-General, Roberto Azevêdo, has warned that the count-down to Bali has begun and, despite his determined optimism in his report to the informal meeting of the WTO Trade Negotiations Committee (which oversees the negotiations) earlier this month it is clear there is still some way to go if concrete results are to be achieved at this meeting.
Some readers expressed surprise that the blog should take an interest in the Bali meeting. But the success, or otherwise, of this meeting will have implications for the WTO’s role in negotiating the rules of agricultural trade and domestic support policies. The landscape of agricultural support is changing fast, and the Doha Round remains stalled. Even if WTO members succeed in agreeing on some steps to further facilitate trade at Bali (and an agreement on trade facilitation remains the big prize), there still remains the question whether that will be sufficient to inject new momentum into the Doha Round negotiations.
Some have argued that the Doha Round has now become a hindrance to further multilateral trade liberalisation and that it would be better to let it die and to start afresh with a different negotiating approach (see also my earlier discussion in 2011 of life after Doha). This immediately raises two questions: what would we lose from walking away from the Doha Round, and what, if anything, might be put in its place?
In a recent paper, I tackle these questions from an agricultural perspective. The paper describes the stage that the negotiations have reached in agriculture and summarises the most recent draft modalities for agricultural trade liberalisation. It surveys recent estimates of the value of what is currently on the table. It discusses the reasons for the current impasse in the negotiations and asks whether agricultural trade liberalisation would be better served by abandoning the Doha Round. The paper argues that this would not be the case, and concludes by speculating on the minimum conditions necessary to ensure a conclusion to the Round.
But at the end, while it reasonably easy to identify what needs to be done to get a Doha Round agreement, it is much less clear how to bring this about. I quote the conclusions of the paper here.

Another failure at Bali would surely bring the stuttering Doha Round to an end, even if no WTO member wants to be the first to pronounce it dead. But should this be allowed to happen and, if so, what should take its place?
Many countries seem satisfied with the status quo and are in no particular hurry to introduce new rules to regulate trade, After all, world trade has grown rapidly since the conclusion of the Uruguay Round Agreements in 1994 and the spectre of protectionism during the recent economic recession has, so far, largely been kept at bay.
For those countries which perceive the need for new rules, some seem ready to walk away from multilateral negotiations and to pursue their trade objectives solely through bilateral and regional trade initiatives. Others propose the negotiation of critical mass or plurilateral agreements within the WTO between groups of likeminded countries. Others argue that the Doha Agenda focuses too much on yesterday’s trade issues, and call for the relaunch of multilateral negotiations to address the new trade policy challenges which have emerged in the past ten years.
Each of these alternatives has its own problems. They ignore the considerable amount of work that has been done within each of the negotiating areas of the Doha Round. None of them provides a convincing way to address the ‘old’ trade issues including agriculture which are still of great interest to many of the WTO’s members. Thus, there still seems merit in trying to bring about the conditions that would give the Doha Round a greater chance of success.
But with the US increasingly retreating from its role as the provider of global public goods, the EU and Japan beset by internal economic problems, and the emerging countries of China, Brazil, India and South Africa strongly constrained by domestic politics from making an impasse-breaking negotiating offer, it is hard to see from where the political leadership to create these conditions might come.

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